Chicago Too-Lite?

With PBS looking to expand its dwindling audience, WTTW picked Bob Sirott—a former DJ and wisecracking morning-show host—to take over a revamped Chicago Tonight.

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On a typical weekday evening, fewer than 50,000 households tune in to “Chicago Tonight", WTTW­Channel 11’s signature public affairs show. That’s not exactly a “Friends"-size audience.

But Channel 11 is public television, and no one expects it to compete with, say, NBC. “Chicago Tonight” may serve a relatively small constituency, but it is an influential one, made up of policymakers, politicos, journalists, and serious citizens. The show carries weight.

So when the station announced last spring that it was expanding “Chicago Tonight” to an hour, there should have been celebrating-if not in the streets, at least in the civic clubs, nonprofit boardrooms, and wherever else public affairs junkies congregate.

Instead, a certain amount of handwringing has taken hold. That’s because the expanded show comes with an unlikely new maestro: Bob Sirott, the former Top 40 disc jockey who reinvented morning TV news shows here with “First Thing in the Morning” at Channel 5 and “Fox Thing in the Morning” at Channel 32. A favorite Sirott gambit was to interview celebrities in bed. His are not the kind of credentials that go far with policy wonks, and the joke among “Chicago Tonight"’s old guard is that Sirott will turn the show into ” ‘TTW in the Evening.”

The public affairs guardians at the Chicago Tribune editorial page found the hiring of Sirott troubling enough to worry about whether the show would “remain the destination of choice for intelligent viewers seeking analysis of issues that may not be sexy or funny but are terribly important to their lives.” Laura Washington, the former editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter and a frequent guest on “Chicago Tonight", was even more concerned. In July, she wrote in her weekly Chicago Sun-Times op-ed column, “Station insiders say that Channel 11’s nationally acclaimed franchise for hard news and analysis will be ‘dumbed down.’”

 

Other red flags were raised. “Chicago Tonight"’s current host, Phil Ponce, finally agreed to stay on and work with Sirott-but only after lengthy negotiations over renewing his contract. As this magazine went to press, John Callaway, the show’s legendary former host and cofounder, was still hashing out details in his own contract. Would he agree to contribute to the new show and thereby give it his imprimatur? Callaway declined to comment for this article, and Ponce directed all questions to the station’s PR department.

And then there were the rumors (dismissed by Channel 11) that a few of Sirott’s former Fox colleagues would be joining him at ‘TTW to re-create their old Fox gigs. Sirott’s wife and former cohost, Marianne Murciano, was mentioned. And newspapermen Rick Kogan and Richard Roeper were said to be standing by to reprise their segment “Media Creatures,” which most often found them reading and commenting on the day’s newspapers in a live broadcast from the Billy Goat Tavern. (“With all the people rumored to be coming aboard,” Sirott says, “they’ll have to expand to two hours.")

The hallway whispering and behind-the-scenes maneuvering was a spicy recipe for gossip and rumor-and who ever expected that from “Chicago Tonight"? At least the show has generated some buzz.

Dan Schmidt, president of WTTW, insists the concerns are overblown. “The core value of the show has always been, and will continue to be, an in-depth news analysis of a single topic,” says Schmidt. “The notion that we are replacing Phil with Bob is ludicrous. No one ever had any intention of Bob doing hard news. . . . [There is] no consideration of Bob Sirott being the next John Callaway or Phil Ponce.”

Instead, the new formula calls for Sirott to open the show and throw it to Ponce, who will continue the program’s roundtables of guests talking about a current event. Sirott will reappear in the second half-hour introducing and sometimes appearing in lighter segments on topics like health and the arts. The oft-used analogy likens the show to the Chicago Tribune: Ponce will continue to handle the front page and editorials, while Sirott will follow with Tempo.

“It’s not, in principle, a bad thing,” says Pat Aufderheide, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and one of the nation’s leading experts on public television. “The question is, Does [Sirott] change the mandate? Will it be ‘news lite’? Does it take away from the serious policy discussions on a nightly basis?”

Put another way: What are the obligations of public television in a time of declining ratings and increased competition from cable TV and the Internet-not just for “Chicago Tonight” but for PBS and news shows generally?

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“Chicago Tonight” has become enough of an institution that it is easy to forget that the show is still relatively young. The broadcast’s roots can be traced back to Newton Minow, the Chicago lawyer who, as John F. Kennedy’s Federal Communications Commission chairman, famously declared television “a vast wasteland.” In 1971, as chairman of the WTTW board, Minow recruited Bill McCarter from the public television station in Washington, D.C., to come to Chicago and build Channel 11 into a model public television station.

At the time, Channel 11 was rather dreary, turning over its airwaves to the Chicago City Colleges from 6 to 8 p.m. every weeknight. McCarter, who helped create “Washington Week in Review,” the first public affairs show ever aired on PBS, shared Minow’s vision for strong local programming.

It wasn’t until 1974 that McCarter got the pieces in place by persuading Callaway to leave Channel 2, where he was a reporter, to host a new show called “Public News Center.” Its formula was essentially to cover three or four stories a night over 30 minutes. The show lasted for three years before Callaway left to star in “The John Callaway Interviews,” which was distributed nationally and proved to be a big hit, cementing Callaway’s reputation as an interviewer extraordinaire.

But neither McCarter nor Callaway lost the itch to do a nightly news show. In 1983, inspired by the turbulence of Harold Washington’s mayoralty, Callaway asked McCarter for another go. McCarter agreed; he called the show “Callaway” and aired it (on tape) at midnight. A year later the broadcast was renamed “Chicago Tonight” and moved to 10:30 p.m., but could not compete with reruns of “The Love Boat” and “Kojak,” much less “Nightline.” The station then moved the show to 6:30 p.m., and finally, in 1987, to 7 p.m. (where it remains today, with rebroadcasts at 11:30 p.m., 1:30 a.m., and 4:30 a.m.).

In that prime time slot, “Chicago Tonight” started delivering respectable ratings-typically above 3.0 and sometimes higher, if the topic wasn’t, say, city schools, which would drive away suburban viewers (during the 2001-2002 TV season, one ratings point in Chicago equals about 33,600 households).

During its run under Callaway, “Chicago Tonight” became something akin to the city’s de facto press conference, as the Tribune TV critic Steve Johnson once wrote. Callaway debriefed, deconstructed, and debated the city’s newsmakers, pitting argument against argument in a way that made public policy issues-and politics-easily understood by viewers. And it was entertaining along the way, because of both its lively tone and its forays into nonpolitical topics such as sports.

 

To much acclaim and sadness, Callaway retired from the show in 1999. His successor, Phil Ponce, was a natural choice. Ponce, a 52-year-old lawyer, had worked for nine years at Channel 2, both as a news reporter and as anchor for the long-running public affairs program “Common Ground.” He joined “Chicago Tonight” in 1992 as a correspondent-and backup anchor to Callaway-and put in five years before joining PBS’s “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” (renamed “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” in 1995 after Robert MacNeil retired).

During Ponce’s tenure at “Chicago Tonight", the ratings have slid. In Callaway’s last full year, the show earned a rating of 2.7. In the next three years, the ratings were 2.0, 1.9, and 1.5. For the first six months of this year, it logged a rating of 1.3. By comparison, this year the 10 p.m. news on Channel 7-the top local news broadcast-scored an 11.2 rating during the month of July.

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Ponce’s appointment to the “Chicago Tonight” anchor chair came at around the time that WTTW was undergoing several other big changes. For one, Dan Schmidt replaced Bill McCarter as president of Windows to the World Communications, the parent company of WTTW-TV and WFMT-FM, the for-profit classical radio station. Though he had deep roots in public broadcasting, Schmidt was viewed as a surprise choice since it is the television side that is considered the crown jewel, public face, and moneymaker of the organization-and Schmidt came from WFMT.

Schmidt understood the challenges public broadcasting faced in a high-tech, multimedia world that was fragmenting audiences. With the help of media management consultants at Northwestern University, Schmidt developed a bold five-year plan called Network Chicago. It was introduced to the press in April 1999, though it would take a while for the public to see it in action.

Network Chicago drew upon the trendy corporate notions of “synergy” and “delivering content across multiple platforms.” For marketing purposes, all of WTTW’s properties-Channel 11, WFMT, a new weekly publication called CityTalk, and a new Web site-were put under the umbrella of the brand name Network Chicago. For more practical purposes, the Web site would serve as the informational hub of WTTW’s media outlets, and those outlets would work together to produce content. In theory, for example, a WFMT listener could go to the Web site to find out more about a favorite artist. Perhaps that artist would be profiled in CityTalk, and maybe that artist would be featured on a WTTW program.

Like a lot of grandiose media projects, this one hasn’t really worked out. In fact, the critics have pronounced Network Chicago a failure. While not entirely dismissing the effort, the Trib’s Steve Johnson last year concluded the plan to be “grand, possibly unreachable.” The Sun-Times’s Phil Rosenthal called it “smoke and mirrors.” “A total disaster,” says Northwestern University’s Lawrence Lichty, a radio, television, and film professor who helped create National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” “They never could explain to the audience very well why they were doing what they were doing.”

 

Indeed, there were few synergies to be found with a classical radio station; the Web site didn’t develop beyond the ordinary; and CityTalk foundered amid budget cuts and staff layoffs. (Schmidt insists Network Chicago is a work in progress that is still moving forward.)

As part of the Network Chicago makeover, Schmidt reprogrammed the 7:30 p.m. slot following “Chicago Tonight” to mixed response. Callaway’s “Chicago Stories” has been a hit, doubling the ratings for its time slot. “Chicago Tomorrow,” a show about innovations at burgeoning local universities, businesses, and medical centers, proved too expensive to make and unpopular with viewers. A retooled “Artbeat Chicago” has been well received.

But the show that most intrigued critics, a local knockoff of “Politically Incorrect” called “The Cheap Show,” never quite jelled. Schmidt later introduced “Check, Please!” A roundtable of citizen restaurant reviews hosted by Spago’s Amanda Puck, the show seems to be holding its own.

Ideas for business and sports shows fell by the wayside-as did Schmidt’s desire for a nightly 10 p.m. newscast. Instead, he decided to expand “Chicago Tonight”. But he faced internal resistance from the start. The “Chicago Tonight” staff feared doubling their workload without a corresponding increase in resources, such as producers, reporters, and money.

Schmidt says that new technology and contributions from “Chicago Stories” and “Artbeat Chicago” will ease the resource crunch for the new “Chicago Tonight”. But he also says he had to break down “a long history of a certain way of doing things” that included an unnecessarily slow pace. These days, he says, “productivity is up. We taught them that, instead of three documentaries a year, they can do one a week.”

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The flap over “Chicago Tonight"-and Network Chicago-is not occurring in a vacuum. Like other media, public television broadcasters are still trying to figure out where they fit in the new, unstable mediasphere of cable TV and the Internet. Since the mid-1990s, the public television business around the country has been in something of a panic over lost viewers and a muddled identity.

PBS is a nonprofit version of a typical network like NBC or CBS. It has 349 member stations, which broadcast national programming provided by PBS or other member stations, along with any local programming they choose to produce on their own. WTTW has always been a leader in local programming, just as WGBH in Boston is known for its national programming.

PBS has had a hard time in recent years satisfying its member stations. In 1996, falling ratings became so worrisome that local member stations formed the Public Television Programming Association to lobby PBS for better programs. PBS responded in part by trying to develop new approaches to public affairs programming. The effort failed, as evidenced by a discussion last June in San Francisco at PBS’s annual meeting.

“We are dangerously close in our overall prime-time numbers to falling below the relevance quotient,” Pat Mitchell, the president of PBS, told programmers. “And if that happens, we will surely fall below any arguable need for government support, not to mention corporate or individual support. There is a level beyond which we cannot go and still claim to be a universal service.”

Mitchell backtracked later, but her comments demonstrate how tricky ratings are for public broadcasters. In one sense, ratings aren’t supposed to matter. Public television exists to provide programming that is deemed important and beneficial to society but that might not otherwise survive in a commercial market.

Of course, that’s no excuse for putting on a broadcast few care to watch. “They are better at saying they’re noncommercial than saying what they want to do,” says Pat Aufderheide, the American University professor. “A lot of [public television] stations exist because they’re already there.”

It’s that lack of mission-and vision-that bothers Aufderheide much more than a lack of ratings per se. “I’m less concerned with numbers of any kind than I am about a connection with an audience of any kind,” she says. “The reality is that [public television’s] ratings were really low in the first place. They serve two constituencies well-children under six and old people. Unfortunately, the demographic of public television is over 60, and these people are dying and they’re not being replaced.”

 

Take “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” PBS’s venerable evening newscast whose purpose is to explore the day’s major stories with a depth not provided by the commercial networks. The travails of the “NewsHour” are particularly relevant to WTTW because it is the all-important “lead-in” show that helps deliver viewers to “Chicago Tonight”. To some degree, the “NewsHour"’s problems become “Chicago Tonight"’s problems.

Like “Chicago Tonight", the “NewsHour” began as a half-hour show exploring a single topic. It went to an hour in 1983, and has added more cultural coverage. But the “NewsHour"’s ratings have been tumbling. In 1993, it had a 2.0; five years later it was down to a 1.2, and 56 percent of its audience was 50 or older. (During the first six months of 2002, ratings had inched back up to 1.5.)

In the face of the decline, Lehrer has defended the “NewsHour"’s mission. In a speech at Notre Dame last March, he said, “There is an increasing tendency to see news as entertainment, not information. Using an entertaining way to inform is fine, but the purpose of news is to inform. . . . If you want to be entertained, go to the circus.”

Schmidt insists he understands that sentiment, and that he shares the concern over trivializing “Chicago Tonight”. “It’s natural for people to hold “Chicago Tonight” up as a symbol of tradition,” he says. “A lot of people are unhappy with the dumbing down of media everywhere, the quest for ratings and profits, the perception that the qualitative level is not as high as it used to be.”

But he claims that’s not what he has in mind. “It’s just not true,” he says. “The quality niche justifies our existence.”

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Bob Sirott, now 53, had a strong seven-year run with Fox, but it didn’t end well. By the spring of 2000, Channel 9’s “Morning News” was pulling a 4.6 rating, while “Fox Thing” had slipped to a 2.4. Stacey Marks-Bronner, Fox’s general manager, decided to retool the show. Her first step was to replace Murciano, whom Sirott had married in 1999, with Tamron Hall. Unsurprisingly, Sirott and Hall had little chemistry. As Marks-Bronner steered the show in a more traditional direction, Sirott became increasingly unhappy.

Last fall, Sirott left the show. He finds it amusing that the perception of him has changed as he moved across the dial. “[Fox] referred to me as a purist, an elitist,” he says. “They thought I was on my high horse over there. And all of a sudden over here my horse got lowered.”

After leaving “Fox Thing,” Sirott stitched together a range of freelance gigs, including a documentary for WTTW, How Chicago Rocked the ’60s, about a time when five Chicago bands ruled the charts. Working on that show, Sirott introduced Fox producer Randy King to Dan Schmidt, who was looking for someone to put in charge of television programming. Even before King got the job, he and Sirott had discussed working together at WTTW. So it was no surprise when King brought Sirott aboard.

King says he wants to keep Ponce in his current role, but thinks an expanded show needs a host who can represent the whole show, not just the nightly news roundtable that Ponce directs. He says he wants the option of shortening and lengthening the roundtable according to how it is proceeding. And, by King’s thinking, you wouldn’t want your serious news guy shifting from serious analysis to smiling while introducing a piece on weekend entertainment. That’s Sirott’s territory.

“Bob is the host from start to finish,” King says. “He’s the guy who can get us from point A to point F, from serious to light. He’s the quarterback. The first on, the last off.”

* * *

The question remains: Is Bob Sirott the right man for the job? Lichty calls Sirott “a talented broadcaster.” Steve Johnson, the Trib TV critic, often praised Sirott as “sly” and “savvy.” “That public TV can learn from the good things that commercial TV does is nothing to be sneered at,” says Aufderheide. “Picking off talent is good.”

At the same time, Sirott says, he understands that Ponce has been put in an awkward spot. “I recognize that it’s difficult,” Sirott says. “Look, I exited a place because I couldn’t deal with the changes I didn’t agree with.”

The show starts in late fall-but at press time an exact date had not been set. Station management has been trying to figure out a way to integrate Sirott into the show before they launch a début. “It’s going to take a long time to get the show where we want,” says Sirott. “I’m looking forward to doing what I want to do. I thought I had run out of places to do it. Thank God this opportunity came along.”

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